MPs approve controversial UK Internal Market Bill

29 September 2020, 20:41 | Updated: 29 September 2020, 20:56

The Internal Market Bill could override parts of the Brexit agreement
The Internal Market Bill could override parts of the Brexit agreement. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

MPs have voted to approve Boris Johnson's controversial Internal Market Bill, which ministers have admitted could break international law.

MPs voted 340 to 256, majority 84, in favour of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill at third reading, despite warnings that the "law-breaking" legislation threatens the Union and the country's global reputation.

Ministers have defended powers contained in the legislation, which gives them the opportunity to override the Brexit divorce deal.

They argue such powers are needed to protect the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, amid concerns in Westminster that Brussels could seek to disrupt food goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland as part of trade talks.

The Government was forced to compromise earlier in the Bill's passage in the face of a Tory backbench rebellion, which resulted in changes to give MPs a vote before ministers can use the powers which would breach the Withdrawal Agreement brokered with Brussels last year.

The Bill also contains powers which enable Westminster to provide financial assistance for economic development, infrastructure, cultural activities and education purposes across the country.

Speaking at third reading, Business Secretary Alok Sharma told MPs: "Our approach will give businesses the regulatory clarity and certainty they want.

"It will ensure the cost of doing business in the UK stays as low as possible, and it'll do so without damaging and costly regulatory barriers emerging between the different parts of the United Kingdom."

Mr Sharma accused SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford of wanting to be "shackled to the European Union forever", to which Mr Blackford replied: "You're talking nonsense."

Addressing the controversial elements of the Internal Market Bill which enable the UK to override the Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Sharma said: "The reason we have taken powers to ensure that in the event we do not reach an agreement with our EU friends on how to implement the (Northern Ireland Protocol) is so we're able to deliver on our promises in our manifesto and the command paper.

"This is a legal safety net that clarifies our position on the Northern Ireland Protocol for protecting our union, businesses and jobs."

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said Labour supported the principle of the internal market, but opposed the "law-breaking" Bill.

He told the Commons: "On devolution, we on this side believe deeply in our Union but the strength of our Union relies on sharing power not centralising it, and this Bill does not learn that lesson.

"It makes the choice to impose the rule that the lowest regulatory standard in one Parliament must be the standard for all without a proper voice for the devolved administrations."

Mr Miliband said he fears the Bill will "strengthen the hand of those who want to break up the UK".

He also said: "On international law, nobody should be in any doubt the damage already done by this Bill.

"This law-breaking Bill has been noticed around the world."

Mr Miliband highlighted reservations from US president Donald Trump's Northern Ireland envoy, Mick Mulvaney, adding: "When the Trump administration starts expressing concern about your adherence to international agreements and the rule of law, you know you are in trouble.

"That is how bad this Bill is," he said.

Earlier in the debate, SNP MP Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) also said: "This Bill explicitly gives any minister of the Crown permission to run riot with the very assets of Scotland that our Scottish Parliament has protected."

Independence, she said, "is the only option left for Scotland", adding: "This is a union that England dominates. The only reason there isn't an English Parliament is because the people in Westminster view this place as the English Parliament, and we can't afford to be naive. The only way to protect our Parliament is to become independent."

She added: "It took us 300 years to get our Scottish Parliament and 20 years for this place to put a bulldozer right through it."

The conservative government criticised the Labour Party for voting against the bill.

Opposition MPs have warned it will give the UK Government the chance to stray into matters which are devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, branding it an "attack" on devolution.

Amanda Milling MP, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, said: “On their final opportunity to stand up for the integrity of the United Kingdom, Labour have unsurprisingly again chosen to side with the European Union.

“For all their talk of new leadership, Labour’s actions tell a very different story – they won’t stand up to Brussels, they won’t protect the Union and Sir Keir Starmer won’t rule out working with Nicola Sturgeon to rip our country apart.

“Our UK Internal Market Bill protects the Union and ensures we can preserve peace in Northern Ireland, delivering on our manifesto promise to ensure unfettered trade across the whole United Kingdom.”

The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords at a later date.